A Redefinition of Sustainability: The Unilever Case

The 1987 United Nations’ Brundtland Report (World Commission on Environment and Development) was the first platform to articulate the idea of “sustainable development” to a wide audience. The Report framed it as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It posited that the only truly sustainable form of progress is that which simultaneously addresses the interlinked aspects of economy, environment and social well-being.

In the subsequent two years, around 140 alternative and modified definitions of “sustainable development” emerged. It has been estimated that there are currently some three hundred definitions of “sustainability” and “sustainable development” within the domain of environmental management and associated disciplines (see Johnston P., Everard M., Santillo D. and Robèrt K.H.: Reclaiming the Definition of Sustainability. Env Sci Pollut Res 14 (1), 60 – 66 (2007)).

My own definition of sustainability (January 28, 2013) rests upon humanity’s development of a global state of affairs that will allow us to flourish until we can build the technology for extraterrestrial travel and migrate to another planet once conditions here deteriorate.

  • For how long? – Forever! To repeat President Obama’s language – “We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
  • How to do it? – To achieve the sustainable objectives on this time scale, we will have to establish equilibrium with the physical environment and at the same time maximize individual opportunities for every human on this planet.

I felt compelled to add to this definition due to two events:

The first trigger was an article in the New York Times by David Gelles: “Unilever Finds that Shrinking its Footprints is a Giant Task.” Gelles describes the efforts that Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, is making to convert it to a sustainable company.

Paul Polman would like that to change. As chief executive of Unilever, Mr. Polman has made sustainable production — of Hellmann’s, Lipton tea, Dove soap, Axe body spray and all the other products Unilever makes — the company’s top priority. Detergents are being reformulated to use less water. Packaging is becoming more efficient. And Unilever is taking preliminary steps to make soybean oil, a main ingredient in mayonnaise, more eco-friendly.

And even as Unilever rushes headlong into this brave new world, a big question remains: What is sustainability, anyway? Despite its righteous timbre, it’s a fuzzy term that means different things to different people. When applied to the ingredients and processes in the 1,000 different mass-market brands Unilever makes, the complications multiply endlessly. Scores of issues arise in just one jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, starting with the soybean oil. Dig into the specifics of that one ingredient, and it becomes clear that what Unilever calls sustainable sometimes doesn’t mean all that much.

The second thing that prompted me to look into a new definition for sustainability was the realization at the end of the COP21 meeting that mitigation of anthropogenic climate change is the key to shifting from a world that puts a premium on economic growth to one that places that same importance on long term global stability. Such a change requires major shifts from business-as-usual scenarios (which can run into impossible extremes in terms of population growth, economic growth, use of natural resources, waste disposal etc.), to steadier scenarios that require equilibrium between human efforts to improve our standard of living and the physical environment.

Our goal should be to Help Unilever’s CEO define sustainability to make his company green, and then extend the algorithm to every global organization and government.

Unilever is a British-Dutch multinational consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London, United Kingdom. Its products include food, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products. It is the world’s third-largest consumer goods company measured by 2012 revenue, after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé.[5] Unilever is the world’s largest producer of food spreads, such as margarine.[6] One of the oldest multinational companies, its products are available in around 190 countries.[7]

Unilever was founded in 1930 by the merger of the Dutch margarine producer “Margarine Unie” and the British soap maker “Lever Brothers.” Margarine Unie was formed in 1927 but its “ancestors” (products of other mergers) can be traced back to 1872. Lever Brothers was founded in 1885.

I don’t want to go into the details of its present management structure – only to suggest that it create a Division for Business Sustainability. The head of that division would report directly to Mr. Polman, with affiliates in every other unit of the company. The division’s mission would be to make sure that Unilever continues to be a relevant, profitable business for at least another 85 years while also factoring in environmental costs – in the long term you cannot have business sustainability without having environmental sustainability. Of course, this will not be a simple task. True, its founding companies have been producing margarine and soap for more than 100 years, but various products become more or less viable over time, depending on the balance between production costs and proceeds.

As the World Resources Institute reports, companies like the shoe manufacturer Puma have started to look into the relationship between environmental costs and revenue.

The company valued the environmental impact of its operations and supply chain in 2010 at about $190 million, factoring in impacts like water use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use conversion, air pollution, and waste. The company is now using this statement as a way to drive environmental initiatives, which it views as key to its long-term commercial survival. Puma’s environmental profit and loss statement is helping employees, shareholders, and suppliers understand the magnitude of the company’s environmental impacts, prioritize which ones to tackle first, and incorporate this information into decision-making.

At Unilever, the transition will likely take time, including planning how to phase out products that are no longer feasible due to either cost, consumer preferences or environmental concerns. Sooner or later, that last factor will trigger regulatory actions and prohibitive costs in the supply chain. The Business Sustainability division would be in charge of collaborating with other divisions to supply this information.

The division would have access to the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of every product that the company makes and where it is produced. It would then be in charge of following up on the sustainability of every component of the LCA, assessing global and local conditions over the specified time scale with regard to how they would directly affect its products. At the top of the list, within this macro category, are the impacts of global and local sustainability in terms of population, energy use, availability of required commodities, work force, education, political climate, health of supply chain, etc.

All of this sounds as though it would necessitate a large new level of bureaucracy but with the help of decent computer information gathering and cooperation with both academic institutions and other company divisions, it could probably be done in long term, cost effective ways. Hopefully, such progress could help economists stop discounting the future and start treating the future with the respect that our children and grandchildren deserve.

Aside from its CEO’s stated desire to make Unilever a sustainable and profitable company, none of this is particularly unique. COP21 has provided posting opportunities for other companies to go in the same direction.

To use some of the language from the COP21 final agreement (See December 8 blog), climate change is starting to offer opportunities for common but differentiated progress for others in leadership to move their areas of responsibility to a more sustainable future.

This example of a bottom-up course for progress towards a sustainable society can easily be translated into top-down opportunities and incorporated into governance systems at all levels.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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